At least six Conservative ministers, including the then chancellor, George Osborne, and the future health secretary Matt Hancock, did not declare secret meetings at which they were lobbied by Uber, leaked files reveal.
Uber lobbyists met the UK ministers between 2014 and 2016 as the controversial cab-hailing app was in the throes of fraught negotiations to win access to the lucrative British market.
A secret meeting with Osborne in California was also attended by senior executives at Google, and took place just months before he unveiled what turned out to be an utterly ineffective tax on tech companies.
The disclosure will reignite questions over whether Uber recruited Osborne and other supportive Conservative cabinet ministers to pressure the then London mayor, Boris Johnson, into diluting proposed minicab reforms in the autumn of 2015.
At the time, Johnson said he had been deluged by “rampant, frothing, free-market Conservatives” opposing a suggested tightening of regulations on private-hire vehicles. By January 2016 Uber was reported to have won a major victory when Transport for London (TfL) abandoned the proposals.
It is not clear exactly what was discussed at all the secret meetings, which are revealed in the Uber files, a hoard of about 124,000 Uber documents leaked to the Guardian.
During a crucial period in the company’s expansion, its lobbyists met Osborne and Hancock, as well as Michael Gove, Priti Patel, Sajid Javid and Ed Vaizey, the Uber documents record. None of these encounters were disclosed by the relevant departments.
Experts say the covert meetings expose a series of lobbying loopholes in the UK’s guidelines, leading to renewed calls for an overhaul of the transparency code.
Last year, the committee on standards in public life recommended that “the government should revise the categories of published information to close the loophole by which informal lobbying is not disclosed in departmental releases”.
Susan Hawley, the executive director of Spotlight on Corruption, said: “You or I don’t get to have dinner with George Osborne and bend his ear about what we would like done with the economy. It perfectly encapsulates the problem with lobbying and how vested interests capture ministers and decision-making.”
‘A private affair, no hanger-on officials’
In August 2014, Osborne visited California, where the chancellor was invited to a “small dinner” by Rachel Whetstone. The wife of David Cameron’s one-time policy guru Steve Hilton, she was an old personal friend of the Camerons as well as Osborne.
Whetstone was then head of communications and public policy at Google, one of Uber’s most prized investors. Within nine months, she would become Uber’s senior vice-president of policy and communications. About a dozen other diners were invited that evening, including the Google co-founder Larry Page and the then Uber chief executive, Travis Kalanick, the leaked documents show.
The event was just months before Osborne announced his now maligned “Google tax”, which failed to crack down on US multinationals shifting profits out of the UK. The leaked documents also suggest Osborne was the star guest of an event Uber viewed as a business meeting.
Before accepting the invitation, one executive wrote to Kalanick: “We were going to get you in front of Osborne when you’re in London, but this is a much more private affair, no hanger-on officials or staffers … I think it would be a good use of your time.”
The Treasury never disclosed the meeting took place.
A spokesperson for Osborne, now an investment banker at the London firm Robey Warshaw, said: “The premise of this investigation is wrong: far from being secret, it was the explicit and publicly announced policy of the coalition government to meet with global tech businesses, persuade them to invest in Britain, and create jobs here. All business meetings were properly declared.”
Whetstone’s lawyers said the dinner was arranged at Osborne’s request and that she “never sought to exploit or take improper advantage of personal relationships with UK politicians and/or former government ministers”.
The leaked documents contain references to further under-the-radar meetings between Uber lobbyists and UK ministers. They include a series of conversations during a “No 10 visit” in July 2014 with Hancock, Javid, then the culture secretary, and several advisers, according to a spreadsheet titled “Outreach grid” that recorded Uber’s contact with UK politicians and officials.
The notes then record how Hancock met Uber’s lobbying advisers, Westbourne Communications, again later that month. “Westbourne spoke with Matt Hancock about Uber over dinner,” the leaked document said.
Hancock’s spokesperson said the Downing Street meeting was the responsibility of No 10 to declare, while the dinner was “political” and, therefore, not disclosable.
Further meetings in the leaked data were also not shared with the public.
In January 2016, Uber lobbyists met the current cabinet minister Patel, then the employment minister, and Gove, then the justice secretary. In January 2015, a different Uber lobbyist had met Vaizey, then a culture minister, at an industry conference in Germany.
A spokesperson for Patel said: “For official meetings such as this, civil servants are present and responsible for making the appropriate recordings, in the usual way.”
Spokespeople for Gove and Javid said the relevant departments held no record of the meetings recorded in the leaked data. Vaizey’s office said the contact with Uber was not disclosed to the public because it was “not a pre-planned meeting”.
Uber said it was “nonsense” that any of its lobbying was done secretly.